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Review: Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

July 16, 2021

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Filmmaker Morgan Neville’s new documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is as much about the life of the celebrity chef and TV personality as it is about his death. But the question of why Bourdain ended up killing himself in a hotel room in France in 2018 looms large over the film.

It’s hard to imagine anyone going into the film who isn’t aware of how Bourdain died and the salacious rumours around his death, and Neville doesn’t reach for easy answers. But he does explore the question in this involving and emotionally exhaustive film, reaching a sort of catharsis for those impacted by his death.

The film opens with Bourdain talking about what he hopes will happen to his body after he dies, centring the narrative around his mortality. From here, Roadrunner moves breathlessly through his career highlights, showing a man who is very much alive. Piecing together archival footage and interviews, Neville charts his rise from being a chef to bestselling author of the memoir Kitchen Confidential, and finally gaining fame as a television star travelling the globe and trying exotic foods on camera.

But there are glimpses of the darkness to come, with flashes of the genuine suffering in the world that he witnessed first hand on his travels to places like Vietnam and Haiti, and the impact that it had on his mental health. Neville doesn’t shy away from hinting at Bourdain’s dark side, from a macabre sense of humour to his perfectionism and anger, as well as his past as a heroin addict. Emotions run hot in the film’s last act as Bourdain’s friends talk with a mix of grief and, well, anger, about his suicide and the times that he hurt them emotionally.

One of the areas where the film holds back a bit is in exploring Bourdain’s relationship to Harvey Weinstein accuser Asia Argento, whom Neville declined to interview. Bourdain’s role in the #MeToo movement is brought up, with the film noting how he became a merciless champion of it to the point of cutting people out of his own life. But Neville leaves out the fact that Argento herself became a disgraced figure in the movement when she was accused of sleeping with child actor Jimmy Bennett when he was 17, and that Bourdain reportedly helped pay off Bennett to the tune of $380,000 to keep him quiet.

This would have made Roadrunner a much thornier portrait of its central figure, and the omission is somewhat noticeable. The film also seems to strongly suggest that Argento’s infidelity led to Bourdain’s depression at the time of his death, which some claim to be an unfair accusation. The film’s most controversial element is Neville’s choice to use A.I. to recreate Bourdain’s voice to read an excerpt from a private email that he sent to his friend, artist David Choe. The ethics of the choice are up for debate, and it adds another layer to the film’s deeper discussion of how we memorialize the dead.

But these things don’t stop Roadrunner from being a compelling and moving documentary portrait of celebrity burnout. The film seems more focused on capturing the essence of Bourdain’s life, and Neville succeeds in exploring his immense curiosity for trying new things, and also the elusive, unknowable parts of himself that often remained hidden. The last act becomes about the heartbreak, grief, and unanswered questions that he left in his wake, with the final few scenes poignantly focusing on how Bourdain would want to be remembered.

This sparks a complex conversation about how we immortalize celebrities who kill themselves, and if it is right to turn them into martyrs. Neville holds our interest throughout the nearly two hour running time, delivering a fast-paced and well edited film that serves as both a solid introduction to Bourdain’s work and a bittersweet farewell for his fans. Part travelogue and part psychological portrait, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain serves as a moving look at a man who ran so fast that perhaps it was inevitable he was going to burn out, offering an exciting glimpse into his unique life.

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is now playing in select theatres. It’s being distributed in Canada by Focus Features.

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